In the wake of the 2016 election, Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Donald Trump and now a top White House adviser, reportedly told a gathering of business executives that Sinclair Broadcast Group’s local TV stations in Ohio reached more potential voters than CNN, the validation of a late-campaign strategy to turn to news anchors in swing states and sympathetic hosts on Fox News.
“It’s math,” Kushner said.
The math is about to get a lot better for the Trump administration as Sinclair, a largely under-the-radar, conservative-leaning broadcasting company, plans to add 42 more stations through a $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. Sinclair, which already owns 173 stations around the country, including local ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates, would now reach over 70 percent of American households.
While polls indicate increasing distrust in the media, the public has said it trusts local news more than national outlets. The Trump White House, perhaps seizing on elevated levels of trust in local news and amid its public fight with the national media, has increased outreach to major players in local news, such as Hearst, Nexstar and Sinclair.
Though Sinclair’s Tribune plan has raised alarms over media consolidation, the Federal Communications Commission under Trump is expected to approve the plan. The deal has also prompted speculation that the Maryland-based Sinclair could remake WGN America, a Tribune Media cable channel with national reach, into a conservative cable network to rival Fox News.
But even if Sinclair doesn’t launch a national cable network, its expanded reach could lead to millions more Americans tuning in to local newscasts with a conservative bent. Sinclair has gained a reputation over the years for supporting Republican candidates and presidents, including the current occupant of the White House.
Following the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Sinclair station managers required local TV anchors to express support for President George W. Bush’s strategy to fight terrorism. The company sent a crew, including a conservative commentator, to Iraq in early 2004 to find more positive stories on the disastrous war.
Later that year, Sinclair fired Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman for speaking out against the company’s plan to air a negative documentary on Democratic nominee John Kerry on 60 stations shortly before the 2004 election. The program, Leiberman told The Baltimore Sun at the time, was “biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election.”
Sinclair similarly ran a critical special on former President Barack Obama in the final days of the 2012 campaign. And the company has been viewed as tilting local stations to the right, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi documented in 2014 after it acquired Washington’s ABC affiliate, WJLA.
In December 2016, Farhi reported that “a review of Sinclair’s reporting and internal documents shows a strong tilt toward Trump.” He wrote there was a “disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign while often casting Clinton in an unfavorable light.”
“News stories and features favorable to Trump or that challenged Clinton were distributed to Sinclair stations on a ‘must-run’ basis — that is, the stations were required by managers in Washington to make room in their evening newscasts or morning programs for them,” he wrote.
In addition to Sinclair giving Trump more favorable coverage, the Republican candidate provided the company with significant access. According to Farhi, Trump gave 11 interviews to Sinclair-owned stations in swing states in the campaign’s final months. Sinclair countered that Clinton was offered similar opportunities, but declined interview requests.
Though Sinclair carries outsize influence, its name isn’t as familiar to consumers as that of other large broadcast companies. In recent years, however, Sinclair has stepped up its national presence through some high-profile hires.
In 2014, the company brought on Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS News correspondent who gained conservative fans for her criticism of the Obama administration and focus on stories such as the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. She now hosts “Full Measure,” a Sunday public affairs show airing on Sinclair stations.
Earlier this year, Sinclair began producing another public affairs show, “The Right Side Forum,” which is hosted by Armstrong Williams, a longtime associate of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. And last month, Sinclair hired former Trump White House special assistant Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst.
The current turmoil at Fox News has sparked rumors that Sinclair could make a play for Bill O’Reilly, who gave up his cable news crown last month following a sexual harassment scandal.
Sinclair’s deal to purchase Tribune has drawn criticism, including from former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who called the acquisition “expected and disappointing.”
“Expected because the new FCC majority is foaming at the mouth to rubber stamp more massive media mergers and disappointing because Sinclair is not known for the best journalism in the land, to put it mildly,” Copps continued. “Our nation’s civic dialogue suffers yet another blow with this merger.”
But the deal is unlikely to be met by opposition from the current FCC. Indeed, the purchase was only made possible by Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who relaxed regulations on how media groups can calculate the extent of their broadcast footprints.
In April, Pai reinstated the so-called “UHF discount,” an FCC rule overturned under the Obama administration that allows media companies to count transmissions on ultra high frequency (UHF) stations at just 50 percent of their reach, since they are thought to reach less viewers than very high frequency channels (VHF).
Pai’s Obama-era predecessor, Tom Wheeler, argued in his overturning of the rule that accounting for the inferiority of UHF channels was no longer pertinent with the rise of digital TV, which has put UHF and VHF transmissions on an equal playing field.
While its relevancy in today’s media landscape is up for debate, the UHF discount makes it a lot easier for media groups to keep their holdings under a reach of 39 percent of the country ― the cap set by Congress. Sinclair’s projected 70 percent reach with the Tribune buy would put them way above that, so it remains to be seen whether Sinclair will sell off some of its holdings to comply with the cap or stake its hopes on the FCC relaxing the cap itself too, as Pai suggested he may consider doing later this year.
Pai has dodged questions on how he’d treat the growth of such media mega-corporations.
“They can always present a transaction, of course, for our consideration, and we’ll make the appropriate judgment,” he told Recode last week when asked about the potential of Sinclair and other media groups to grow.
“Transactions are always going to come and go, depending on what the regulatory framework is,” he continued. “We’re simply convinced that we have to have a set of rules that reflect the marketplace of 2017, not the marketplace of yesteryear.”